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Qualities leaders need to thrive in 21st century organisational life

What are the very qualities that 21st Century organisations need in their leaders if they are to thrive? Martin Saville explores what we can learn.

I tend to exist about half an hour behind wherever I want to be at a given time, or so one of my best friends once pointed out to me. Annoyingly, he is absolutely right.

Historically this has tended to show up in terms of my never quite allowing enough time for travel, so I often arrive either late or bang on time, but perhaps slightly flustered or off-centre. I’m not so poor at managing my time that it impinges overly on anyone else, but it does bother me – I don’t like always being behind and I’m at my best when I have time to think.

The key to being present

Recently I’ve taken steps to do something about it. I’ve been making a conscious effort to think through properly how long things will take and generally to take myself in hand. It’s helped and has also led to some interesting realisations. First of these is that the reason I am always behind myself is that I am often trying to squeeze in ‘one more little thing’ in order to ‘get it off the list’. (Don’t get me started on lists…) I have learned that choosing not to do ‘one more little thing’ is key to my being in the present rather than half an hour behind myself.

A disappearing act

More interesting, however, is the realisation that when I am faced with the possibility of doing one more little thing that I don’t really have time for, I do a kind of ‘psychological disappearing act’. My morning routine (say) can be unfolding in a perfectly rational way. I look at the clock and find I am in good time; as I go about my business, things broadly take the amount of time they are supposed to take. Then perhaps an email will come through with something compelling in it, or maybe I’ll notice a light bulb that needs changing. It’s just one more little thing – a mere two minutes of work, so I’ll see to it – after all, I am in good time….

Flow

Before I know it, 20 minutes have gone by, and my carefully crafted schedule for the morning is now in ruins. On top of that, I am annoyed with myself for the own goal. This act of disappearing seems to be the ‘strategy’ that enables me unconsciously to sustain a habit that is patently self-defeating. It’s a kind-of evil twin of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s idea of ‘Flow’. I am realising it doesn’t just relate to time but also to eating too much, working too much and all the other things I do that keep me from being who I really want to be.

Catching myself when I’ve ‘disappeared’ is hard. I’m getting better at it, partly through a simple meditation practice that has (among many other things) helped me develop more awareness and choice over how I direct my attention. Now, however, another mountain is appearing behind the one I thought I was climbing. I’m having to do business with the anxiety or sadness or whatever else comes up when I am fully ‘here’ and choose not to numb it away with too much activity or food.

Leadership

What has all this to do with 21st Century leadership and the other things we are interested in at Mayvin? For me, the touchpoint is about wisdom. By doing business with my ‘stuff’ in the way I have related above, I can hope to become a little wiser. I may make better choices and foster better relationships – with myself, and with and between others. I may become more self-aware and manage my emotions better. I may develop habits that support me to respond more effectively to what life throws at me. These are the very qualities that 21st Century organisations need in their leaders if they are to thrive. 

I was amazed to learn many years ago that time doesn’t (straightforwardly) exist. It seems to have taken me a lot longer to learn that while this may be the case, we are still subject to its laws. I suspect leadership in the 21st Century is going to be all about learning such lessons.

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